E&T news weekly #62 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday September 18 2015

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Network of ‘droneports’ proposed to supply Africa

This is an ambitious idea that sounds as if it could really work. Only a third of Africans live within 2km of an all-season road, but a cargo network based on unmanned aircraft would make it much easier to deliver urgent supplies such as medicines or spare parts. The plan unveiled by the eminent architect Lord Foster is to set up ‘droneports’, initially in Rwanda, built to a standard design by local people using local materials. Commercial cargo and e-commerce services would subsidise transport of medical and emergency supplies, and the buildings would be flexible enough to house health clinics, post offices and drone assembly workshops, providing more employment opportunities. A pilot project is due to begin next year.

Automakers asked to explain cyber-security protections

I pointed out a couple of months ago that the problem of hackable vehicles has been recognised for some time and needs to be addressed. Of course, the automotive industry is working on the issue, but now two US senators have written to the major car manufacturers asking them to explain what they are doing and how they test the security of their electronic systems.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Majority of girls find STEM subjects ‘too difficult to learn’

Aside from being comedic gold for sexist throwback ‘comedians’, this headline reveals a worrying truth for parents, schools and government, all of whom are desperately trying to convince more female students to take up STEM subjects in order to stem (excuse the pun) the widening skills gap.

Fracking threatening protected habitats, says RSPB

As if there weren’t already sufficient compelling reasons for us all to rise up and demand that Cameron give fracking the heave ho, now the RSPB warns us it’s a threat to protected habitats, endangered wildlife and nesting birds. Think of the nesting birds, Dave! Think of the nesting birds!

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Power lines to be removed from four protected landscapes

A nice view comes at a cost. UK energy regulator Ofgem has found £500m to fund replacement of electricity pylons and overhead lines that currently straddle four particularly charming areas of countryside around the UK with underground cables. Is it sensible to spend so much to remove something that’s working perfectly well and not harming the environment, just to return the landscape to its pre-industrial state? Localised renewable infrastructure not connected to the grid is an alternative, but nobody seems to want wind turbines dotting our green and pleasant land any more than they like the pylons.

Facebook to test alternative to ‘Like’ button

The radio alarm woke me one morning this week with a presenter trying at some length to explain how Facebook’s mooted alternative to the ubiquitous but often misinterpreted thumbs-up icon would work. The best he could come up with was that we need a way of showing support when a ‘friend’ uses social media to announce the death of a loved one. I suspect that if it’s so difficult to capture the meaning of this apparently essential button then maybe we don’t actually need it.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
Google’s Project Aura revives Glass

And you thought Google Glass was dead. Not at all – Google has just quietly revived it, in a secretive new undertaking for which it has hired several Amazon tech experts. The project – dubbed Aura – will focus not only on improving the smart eyewear but also on developing new wearable technology products.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Facebook to test alternative to ‘Like’ button

After being flooded with requests for a ‘dislike’ button, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg has confirmed plans to add a feature which allows users to express their feelings, such as empathy. Zuckerberg previously rejected the idea of a ‘dislike’ button to prevent the social media site from turning into a voting-style system, but as users post topical news stories, such as the Syrian refugee crisis, the ‘like’ button doesn’t quite express the users’ thoughts.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Automakers asked to explain cyber-security protections

Who hacked my Hexie? Last Monday I was late to work, because Hexie – my old Fiat Punto, with a HEX number plate, hence the name – suddenly stopped in the middle of one of Stevenage’s countless roundabouts. As a jalopy with automatic (as opposed to manual) transmission, it was not supposed or expected to switch off like that, on its own. That was why I had to take Hexie to a garage for a service, and on the way its tired old engine kept switching off for no reason, so I was glad to have reached a garage in one piece, with both me and Hexie unharmed, if extremely frustrated. The mechanic, however, found there was nothing wrong with the car. He changed the engine oil, just to be on the safe side, and let us both (Hexie and me) go. Surprisingly, there were no more sudden stops after that – fingers crossed – which made me think that the malfunction had simply been a result of Hexie’s venerable age – a motor vehicle version of Alzheimer’s, when a car forgets it has to move forward? Having read this news story, however, I came to the conclusion that Hexie was hacked! By whom? That’s a good question… Could it be one of the highly computer-literate readers of my After All column (for Hexie was mentioned in it recently)? If so, I invite him or her to come forward and can offer him or her a signed copy of one of my books in exchange for the promise never to hack my Hexie again, for if he or she keeps doing so, it may result in the situation when I will never be able to reach my office, and that, in turn, would herald the end After All – the outcome that he or she as the column’s devoted reader (or so I hope) would, hopefully, want to avoid.

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